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Who Wants to be a Malagasy Millionaire?

Hi. I'm Rory, and I'm from Australia. I've only been here a month, but already I'm completely addicted—to Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. I've just been totally sucked in by the drama, the suspense, the soap opera of it all. It's just like reading weblogs, except with infinitely more money at stake.

But unlike half of America, I have no desire to be a Millionaire contestant. Because I've already been a millionaire. In fact, I could be one again.

All I'd have to do would be to fly to Madagascar, which I visited two months ago. It's an island off the coast of Africa, about the size of California. Their currency is the Malagasy franc. It's not worth very much: in fact it takes 6000 francs to buy one US dollar. So a million francs is worth about $160.

Well, so what, you're thinking; that's just a quirk of the currency. Like the lira.

Except Madagascar is one of the poorest countries in the world. The average income there is 25 dollars a month. So a million francs is six months' income for most people there.

Now, as a visitor in that kind of environment, it is really difficult to manage your money, because the local price structure doesn't match the tourist price structure. Sure, you're only paying five or ten bucks a night for your hotel, but by local standards that's a fortune. You really have to watch how much cash you carry around, because more than five bucks is going to be incredibly tempting to muggers.

But unfortunately, travellers' cheques don't come in $5 denominations. And there was one time when this was really brought home to me and my wife.

We were in a small town in the south, and we needed more cash—we were down to our last thousand francs or so. So we go to the bank. When we walk in, everyone is looking at us—the rich white tourists.

We go up to the teller. 'Bonjour, monsieur; acceptez-vous cheques du voyages, s'il vous plait?' 'Oui, bien.' So I get out a $100 travellers' cheque and sign it. The teller slowly, methodically examines my passport, stamps the cheque, types out a receipt—on a typewriter, hands it to me, and directs me to the cashier to pick up the money.

So we go and line up behind the locals. There's a scruffy old lady counting out filthy 500 franc notes worth less than a dime each. Handling the money in Madagascar is a major health hazard. It's a place where you can get a tropical disease for only nine cents.

Then it's our turn. I hand the cashier my receipt. He studies it carefully... pauses for a moment... looks rather embarrassed... and says, in his French-speaking Malagasy accent, 'I 'ave no monnaie.'

So we're standing there, thinking, 'Man—it's a bank, and there's no money. We've just blown a hundred bucks. They've stamped our cheque, so we can't reuse it. And we still don't have any money. What are we going to do?'

Meanwhile, the cashier has left. He's conferring with the manager; and then they both disappear out the back. Now we're feeling incredibly edgy and embarrassed.

Then, after a few anxious minutes, they're back. Turns out they went to the safe to get a hundred bucks in francs for us.

So the cashier comes back over and counts it out. Over 600,000 francs in 25,000 franc notes. That's the largest denomination in Madagascar, and it's worth about $4. They staple them together into batches of ten.

And everyone is watching this. I walk away from that counter feeling like an Arab sheik carrying a dozen bars of gold. While walking down a very dark alley. Under a spotlight.

It was at that moment that I realised that if you want to be rich and famous, forget about getting a job with a hot Silicon Valley start-up; forget about being an Internet rockstar.

Just go to Madagascar and change a hundred bucks in a small-town bank. By their standards, you will be rich—and believe me, everyone will look at you.

Read/performed at Fray Day 4, Cellspace, San Francisco, 22 September 2000.

Walk Back West